I went canoeing last week with my 13-year-old son, Ben, on the boundary lakes between Minnesota and Ontario. Away from phones, radios and any other means to communicate with the outside world, the journey across lakes and portages was strenuous, but relaxing. We’d prepared earlier in the summer for some heavy lifting and I, in particular, lost 35 pounds to avoid including that weight in the canoe. You know the Boy Scout motto? “Be Prepared.” (Maybe, call it standard work.) We tried.
But on the fourth day out, a changing weather pattern delivered heavy headwinds as we portaged to Casche Bay, the entry way to Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. The canoe rocked in waves that splashed to my hip as we loaded our gear. The weight of equipment and three voyageurs provided some stability in the swells, but left little margin for fluctuation: just a few inches between water and gunnels. “We need to stay perpendicular to the waves,” our guide shouted above the winds as we pushed off. “Paddle hard.” That last instruction was not needed. Seated in the bow of the canoe, I was already paddling hard and privately wishing that I’d lost 35 more pounds.
As we neared the middle of the bay the swells increased in size and frequency. My son, who was sitting in the duffer’s seat at mid-canoe videoing the action, cheered as the bow of the canoe rose with each swell and then slapped down on the bay. Soon however, waves were breaking over the bow of the boat, filling the canoe with water. The videoing stopped and the baling began, but to no avail. “Head for that little island over there,” our guide shouted. It was apparent now that no amount of effort would overcome the Mura that Casche Bay was doling out. I thought to myself “No matter what happens, keep paddling.” This tactic was not enough. “Time for plan B”, I thought as the stern of the canoe submerged and gear began drifting away. “We’ll swim it to the shore” our guide shouted. About a half-hour later three strong swimmers (maybe 2 plus an old lean dude) hefted the canoe and gear ashore.
By this time a second canoe in our group had swamped. “What now?” I asked our guide. “We’ll leave all our gear on the shore to lighten the load so we can tow them in.” I stayed ashore. My son’s a better paddler. About an hour later, three shivering voyageurs from the second canoe staggered ashore. They had been in the water much longer than us. “Didn’t you hear our whistle?” one of their party questioned. No, the shrill whistle that each of us carried did not carry for a half-mile over the whistling winds. [Voyageur’s Log: Standard issue whistles don’t work in windy emergencies.] As we recouped and warmed up, divine intervention calmed the winds just enough to enable navigation. Three hours behind schedule, we paddled on, a little chilly, but intact.
As we entered calmer waters along the shore, I reflected on the negative impact that Mura has on safety and productivity. Unevenness and fluctuation will swamp the best paddlers, yet we often turn blind eye to the problem, expecting our employees to “keep paddling.” Where is the Mura in your business, and what are you doing to level the swells? Please share a story.
BTW: Speaking of sharing, the dates for our 2012 Northeast Shingo Conference (September 25-26) are fast approaching. Our theme this year, “Learning to Share,” focuses on the critical role of sharing – plans, standards, problems and ideas – between management and employees, departments and divisions, customers and suppliers. Don’t miss out!